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Michael Hague Creates a Picture-Perfect World for Children : Art: The storybook illustrator’s watercolor universes are in demand by grown-up collectors. His paintings are being showcased in Hollywood.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A grinning triceratops lumbers down a flagstone path, guided by a pajama-clad teddy bear; goggle-eyed “zizzy” bugs flit on zigzag legs; under a midnight-blue sky, fragile-winged fairies in 18th-Century dress watch over a unicorn world.

Michael Hague, one of America’s foremost children’s book illustrators, creates watercolor universes that appeal not only to readers of all ages, but to adult collectors looking for investments in a blossoming children’s art market.

Blending fantasy and realism, he illustrates original works and offers eye-catching new takes on children’s classics from “Peter Pan” to “The Wizard of Oz.”

A sampling of Hague’s paintings, soft and vivid watercolors finely detailed with pen and ink strokes, is being showcased at the Every Picture Tells A Story gallery in Hollywood through July 11.

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Hague, 41, a compact man with shoulder-length, graying brown hair and intense blue eyes, was on hand for the opening of the exhibit.

“I don’t ever remember wanting to be anything but an artist or a baseball player,” he said. “I was just better at drawing than I was at baseball.”

As a child, Hague’s favorite artists were turn-of-the-century children’s book illustrators: W. Heath Robinson, N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham, among others. Disney was also “a great influence,” as were “Prince Valiant” comic strips.

But creating a new look for characters made famous in the drawings of Tenneil or in Disney cartoons is a challenge.

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“The movie versions in particular are so familiar,” Hague said. “ ‘The Wizard of Oz” or ‘Peter Pan'--you can’t keep that out of your consciousness, but you try to re-read the book with a fresh mind and think (for example), ‘What else could Alice (in “Alice in Wonderland”) look like?’ ”

Hague’s approach seems to strike a chord with buyers. Marc Cheshire, Hague’s agent in New York, said that sales of his client’s 21 titles for Henry Holt and Company, “his main publishers,” have reached 1.8 million “which for children’s books in the $16.95 to $18.95 range is extraordinary.”

With Hague’s paintings individually valued up to $4,500, there’s an “established market for Michael’s work,” Cheshire said, “but he doesn’t want to see tremendous jumps in his prices. He has loyal collectors and he doesn’t want to make it unaffordable for them.”

Abbie Phillips is co-owner of Every Picture Tells a Story, which exhibits only original children’s book art. “We’re still at the ground floor of what’s going to be happening in this market,” she said. “It’s one of the last frontiers of collectible art forms. Within the last six months, prices have almost doubled; the year before that they’d increased 150%.”

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Phillips sees Hague as “preeminent in reaffirming the classic tradition. So much of what’s happening in children’s illustration is pushing a limit with experimentation, techniques and levels of abstractions we’ve never seen before.”

Besides paintings and sketches, the gallery also carries several thousand books--"as an art form in themselves,” Phillips said, “and a reflection of what’s happening on the walls.”

A graduate of the Los Angeles Art Center College of Design, Hague worked as a greeting card designer and in advertising until the demand for his book art took off “seven or eight years ago.” Now, he lives and works at home in Colorado “on the side of a hill in the woods,” with his wife Kathleen--an author with whom he often collaborates--and their three children, ages 6 to 15.

Last year, Hague’s career took on a new dimension. When an ABC “thirtysomething” plot line made one of its female leads a children’s book illustrator, the show needed to provide quality work that would be seen onscreen.

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“The script said the paintings should be ‘Michael Hague'-like, and I guess they figured since he’s still alive, why not give him a call,” Hague said. He has done six paintings and sketches so far, “in various stages--pencil and ink drawings and partial and finished color.”

To help make the character believable as an artist, producers often ask Hague’s advice. “But they don’t pay any attention,” he said good-naturedly, pointing out that the character’s desk remains neat and “mine is so messy.”

Publisher interest in his “thirtysomething” paintings of a comical troll and a little knight errant may result in a book. Meanwhile, the latest classic to receive the Hague treatment is Thorton W. Burgess’s “Old Mother West Wind” and Hague has several other projects in the works, including illustrations for a new version of James Michener’s “South Pacific.”


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